12 Things You Need to Know About Magnesium Deficiency

When it comes to nutritional deficiencies, there may be more people sick today from low magnesium than from any other nutritional deficiency. In fact, it’s hard to find a modern disease that’s not associated with low magnesium, in one way or another. Few people truly understand the magnitude of this mineral’s importance in the body.

Scientists have identified more than 3,700 magnesium-binding sites on human proteins, suggesting its role in our health is vastly underappreciated. It is not surprising magnesium plays such an active role in our biology as it’s the eleventh-most abundant element in the human body, the third-most abundant in seawater and the eighth-most abundant element in the universe.

All cells must produce energy to survive, and magnesium is vital for this, driving energy production in your mitochondria, the little powerhouses inside each of your cells. Not only does magnesium fuel production of ATP (the fundamental unit of cellular energy), but it regulates electrolyte balance, transports ions across cell membranes, controls neurotransmitters and protects your DNA. Magnesium is needed to break down glucose and fats and produce vital proteins such as enzymes and antioxidants—including glutathione.

Dr. Mark Sircus compares the role of magnesium in your body to oil in your car’s engine: it keeps everything running smoothly. (1) Magnesium regulates hundreds of biochemical reactions around the clock—which is why your body’s need for it is unrelenting.

In this article, I will cover many of the important functions of magnesium and what to do if your magnesium level is low. Just how likely is it that you have this problem? Unfortunately, it’s almost a given today.

FACT #1: Eighty percent of the population may be deficient in magnesium

When you dive into the literature, you will encounter a variety of figures describing the prevalence of magnesium deficiency, ranging as high as 80 to 90 percent of the population. Dr. Carolyn Dean writes about this in her book The Magnesium Miracle, in which she postulates that 80 percent of the current population is likely deficient. (2, 3) Deficiencies may be even worse than reported because of the lack of accurate testing. (4) Why is this problem so widespread?

Our bodies evolved to run on equal amounts of calcium and magnesium, but today’s diet is comparatively high in calcium and low in magnesium. Our ancestors had a diet with a magnesium to calcium ratio of about 1:1, but our modern-day diets range from 5:1 to 15:1. Consuming roughly ten times more calcium than magnesium has created serious biological imbalances. There are several reasons for these changes in our dietary intake, such as the following:

  1. Industrialized agriculture has caused our soils to lose their magnesium content over time. Vegetables grown today are significantly lower in magnesium than those grown even 20 years ago.
  2. Herbicides like glyphosate act as chelators, effectively blocking the plants’ uptake and utilization of minerals from the soil.
  3. Westerners’ addiction to processed foods has depleted their magnesium reserves. Most foods aren’t “fortified” with magnesium like they are with calcium (although the type of calcium added to processed foods is nutritionally lacking).
  4. Only about 25 percent of adults are getting the recommended daily amount of magnesium, and the RDA itself may be insufficient. In 1900, our average magnesium intake was 500 mg per day which has dropped to 175 to 225 mg today. (5)
  5. The level of chronic stress in Western society is through the roof, radically increasing the need for magnesium-driven stress modulating responses while also promoting loss of magnesium through excretion. Meanwhile, absorption is also compromised by stress-induced gastrointestinal dysfunction.

Magnesium deficiency is not a new problem, but it is a growing one. In 1997, a French study found more than 70 percent of men and nearly 80 percent of women magnesium deficient. (6) The 2003 book The Magnesium Factor tells the story of how Finnish authorities were so concerned about declining heart health in their country that they instituted a nationwide campaign to increase magnesium intake through magnesium salt substitutes. Shortly thereafter, Finland’s heart-related death rates fell from number one in the world to number 10.

FACT #2: Virtually every known illness may be associated with magnesium deficiency

As far as I can tell, this radical-seeming statement can be traced back to Dr. Norman Shealy: (7)

Every known illness is associated with magnesium deficiency… magnesium is the most critical mineral required for electrical stability of every cell in the body. A magnesium deficiency may be responsible for more diseases than any other nutrient.

When you consider the many roles magnesium plays in keeping you healthy, his statement could very well be true. The evidence-based effects of magnesium deficiency wreak havoc with every body system. Many associated health problems are outlined in the table below, although this list is far from comprehensive. (8, 9, 10)

Possible Signs & Symptoms of Magnesium Deficiency

Muscle cramps and spasmsUterine cramping and menstrual painAnxiety, panic attacks, PMS, mood and personality changes
ADD, ADHDFatigueInsomnia
ConstipationNumbness, tinglingInfertility, preeclampsia
Headaches, including migraines (11)Poor concentrationKidney disease, cystitis
Chronic pain, fibromyalgiaOsteoporosisDementia, including Alzheimer’s
AsthmaAllergiesBowel disease
HypothyroidismCancerSeizures, tremor, nerve problems
Heart attack and stroke (12, 13) , blood clots, coronary spasms, arrhythmias, mitral valve prolapseHypertensionType 2 diabetes, hypoglycemia, metabolic syndrome
Liver diseaseRaynaud’s syndromeTooth decay
TinnitusAcid refluxAutism

One of magnesium’s major functions is pulling back the reigns on pain and inflammation. This makes sense when you consider what we’ve already learned about calcium to magnesium ratio. Calcium is pro-inflammatory whereas magnesium is anti-inflammatory. Too much calcium without sufficient magnesium contribute to the development of heart disease.

FACT #3: Magnesium is an excellent anti-inflammatory and pain reliever

If your magnesium levels fall, you get a massive bounce in inflammatory cytokines and histamines which increases your risk for a host of chronic illnesses. A 2007 study in Archives of Biochemistry and Biophysics concluded, “inflammation is the missing link to explain the role of magnesium in many pathological conditions.” (14)

Magnesium has been shown to decrease both muscle and nerve pain. It’s clear that it causes muscles to relax, but magnesium’s actions for reducing neuropathic pain are not as well understood. Magnesium may reduce the activity of the pain-carrying neurotransmitter NMDA (N-Methyl-D-aspartate). (15)

FACT #4: Magnesium revs up your metabolism and stabilizes blood sugar

Magnesium plays a key role in preventing insulin dysregulation and metabolic syndrome. (16) Magnesium helps keep your blood sugar low, but the reverse is also true—low blood sugar helps keep your magnesium levels high by preventing loss of magnesium through the urine. Several studies highlight magnesium’s role in protecting you from type 2 diabetes. One found individuals with the highest magnesium intake had 71 percent lower risk for metabolic problems. (17, 18, 19)

FACT #5: Magnesium may play a role in Alzheimer’s disease

Alzheimer’s disease has been called “diabetes of the brain,” and magnesium’s positive effects on blood sugar help explain its neurological benefits. Recent epidemiological studies even link magnesium deficiency during fetal development with metabolic syndrome later in life. (20) Magnesium is found to improve cognitive function, in terms of memory, learning, focus and mood. (21, 22) Magnesium also improves sleep, which helps your glymphatic system, the special detoxification system in your brain that operates only while you sleep.

A relatively new form of magnesium, L-threonate, is the only form shown to cross your blood-brain barrier, offering special promise to those with Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s patients given magnesium L-threonate for 17 months showed a 36 percent reduction in amyloid plaques in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortices of their brain. The hippocampus is where memories are stored. (23) In an animal study, L-threonate improved learning by 122 percent in younger rats and by 100 percent in older rats. (24)

FACT #6: Magnesium may guard against cancer

Populations with the lowest cancer rates have the highest magnesium intake. A meta-analysis published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found those with higher magnesium consumption developed fewer colorectal tumors. (25) Higher magnesium levels also correlate with higher breast cancer survivability rates. (26)

FACT #7: Your body needs magnesium to detox

Magnesium is critical for proper detoxification. It follows that our need for magnesium increases as our environment gets more toxic. The body requires magnesium for glutathione synthesis, proper methylation and utilization of antioxidants, including vitamins C and E.

FACT #8: Fluoride and prescription drugs further deplete your body’s magnesium stores

Magnesium is an adaptogenic mineral that helps modulate everyday mental and physical stresses related to food allergies and intolerances, prescription drugs, heavy metal exposure (especially aluminum), and other environmental insults. Even metabolizing sugar and high fructose corn syrup can drain magnesium reserves. In terms of prescription drugs, antacids, acid blockers, hormones and diuretic drugs are the most notable culprits.

As many as 20 percent of all prescription drugs contain fluoride, which is particularly concerning because magnesium binds with fluoride to form magnesium fluoride, flushing magnesium out of your body. Fluoride is used in a variety of antibiotics (fluoroquinolones such as Cipro), cholesterol medications, anti-anxiety and arthritis drugs. Magnesium is further depleted by stress, poor digestive function, excessive alcohol or soda intake, caffeine, and aging. Our magnesium requirements generally increase as we age.

FACT #9: Magnesium testing provides a wealth of worthless information

In these days of increasing accessibility to testing, you might expect we would have reliable tests for assessing magnesium level, but surprisingly they don’t exist. There are currently six basic approaches to magnesium testing: serum, RBS, ionic, Exa test (tests buccal epithelial cells), hair analysis, and a loading or tolerance test. There are a few other variations but those are the main ones. The most common by far—and unfortunately the least reliable—is serum magnesium testing.

The prevalence of magnesium deficiency is grossly underestimated because serum magnesium tests miss a significant percentage of the deficient population—50 to 90 percent, by some estimates. (27, 28)

A lab just can’t look at your blood or blood cells and tell you if you are deficient. Serum and red blood cell magnesium concentrations are notoriously poor predictors of tissue magnesium concentration because, much like calcium, magnesium is largely stored in muscle and other soft tissues, not in the blood. About one percent of total body magnesium is in extracellular fluids, and only 0.3 percent is in blood serum. Your bones provide a large exchangeable pool to buffer acute changes in serum magnesium.

The takeaway is, magnesium levels can look good in your blood even when your tissues are depleted. Serum levels are useful in only the most extreme cases of magnesium deficiency — like if you are in the hospital in critical condition or are having chest pains or palpitations.

Buccal cell tests are a little more reliable but far from spectacular, and loading tests are somewhat helpful but rather cumbersome to perform.

In the case of magnesium, one of the most reliable means of assessing your status is the good old-fashioned way—by listening to your body, and perhaps discussing your symptoms with a practitioner who is well versed in the myriad of ways magnesium deficiency may be affecting you.

FACT #10: You can bump up your magnesium level with chocolate and coffee

I’m not advocating an exclusive “chocolate and coffee diet,” but my point here is that many of the foods you already enjoy are naturally high in magnesium. Do you love a bit of dark chocolate now and then? Just one square of dark chocolate contains about 95 mg of magnesium—more than an ounce of almonds, one-eight cup of pumpkin seeds or two-thirds cup of Swiss chard. The average mug of coffee provides a smidgeon… about seven grams.

Did you know that magnesium is the reason green vegetables are green? A magnesium ion lies at the center of every chlorophyll molecule in every green plant, which is why dark leafy green vegetables are so good for us. Many grains are good sources of magnesium as well, but keep in mind refined grains have had their magnesium stripped away by 80 to 97 percent.

Great Foods for Boosting Your Magnesium

Bone brothChardPumpkin seedsSpinach
Dark chocolateRaw pastured dairy, such as yogurt or kefirAvocadoCashews
Sesame seedsQuinoaBlack beansNavy beans
Sunflower seedsAlmondsFigsBanana
Himalayan sea saltSea vegetables (kelp, dulse)SproutsFlaxseeds

FACT #11: Most people cannot get adequate magnesium from diet alone

The US RDA for adults ranges from 310 to 420 mg magnesium daily, (29) but most in the natural health community suggest doubling that. Lieberman and Bruning, authors of The Real Vitamin and Mineral Book, suggest 500 mg daily for women and 750 mg for men. (30) Magnesium is absorbed into the bloodstream from your small intestine, and only one-half to one-third of that ingested is actually absorbed. The average person receives less than 250 mg per day from his or her food, so the vast majority of us would benefit from a high-quality supplement.

There’s a veritable smorgasbord of magnesium supplements on the market today, so which should you choose? There are many factors to consider.

First, realize there is no such thing as a 100 percent magnesium supplement because pure magnesium cannot be absorbed by your body. The mineral must be bound to another substance (cofactor). The amount of elemental magnesium is a measure of how much actual magnesium is in the formula, but you must also consider its absorbability, which varies.

Absorption determines how much of the magnesium makes it into your bloodstream and therefore into your tissues. The more water soluble a form of magnesium, the more absorbable it is by your body. A supplement with poor absorbability is not going to be very useful, even if it’s high in elemental magnesium. The most commonly used co-factors oxide and citrate have relatively poor absorption, so they primarily act as laxatives. This means a significant proportion of that magnesium is lost through the bowel so never makes it to where it’s needed in your body.

The latest research points to chelates as the most effective magnesium supplements. Chelates are those in which magnesium is combined with an amino acid, which increases bioavailability. Magnesium glycinate, malate, taurate and orotate are the best chelates for head-to-toe health. Different forms of magnesium tend to target different parts of the body (e.g., heart, brain, muscles, etc.). For example, magnesium L-threonate is especially good for brain health. (For more about this, refer to the table below.)

In terms of dosing, begin with 400 to 500 mg per day and increase to bowel tolerance—meaning, increase until you have loose stools or until your gut is sending out “warning signals,” then back down a notch.

What about liquid versus pills?

Some claim nothing is better than liquid magnesium due to its ability to bypass the digestive process and go straight into your bloodstream. If your digestive health is compromised, this may be a good option. That said, some of the pill forms have been demonstrated to be very effective, so one can’t claim liquids are the only viable option.

In addition to diet and oral supplements, there are additional ways to boost your magnesium, such as topical (transdermal) magnesium oil and Epsom salt baths (magnesium sulfate). Make sure you also get adequate calcium and vitamins B6, K2, and vitamin D because they work synergistically with magnesium in your body.

Can you overdose on magnesium?

You can overdose on magnesium, but it’s not easy. Magnesium toxicity is extremely rare among those with normal kidney function. Magnesium is water soluble and your body readily excretes any excess via the urine, feces and sweat. Symptoms of magnesium toxicity include diarrhea, abdominal cramping, nausea, vomiting, irregular heartbeat, and ultimately heart attack. Risk of overdose is greatest among the elderly and very young, those with compromised kidneys, and those taking more than 5,000 mg per day—which is a massive dose.

12 Common Magnesium Supplements and Their Benefits

1. Magnesium oxide (aka “magnesia”) and hydroxide

  • Strength, Bioavailability, Special Qualities: Non-chelated forms of magnesium bound to an organic acid or fatty acid; poor absorption and bioavailability; 40-60% elemental magnesium
  • Uses & Effects: Stool-softening and antacid properties; should not be used long-term
  • Primary Target: Gut
  • Laxative Properties: High

2. Magnesium lactate

  • Strength, Bioavailability, Special Qualities: Combined with lactic acid, about 12% elemental magnesium, better absorption than magnesium oxide
  • Uses & Effects: Most often used for digestive issues
  • Primary Target: Gut
  • Laxative Properties: High

3. Magnesium citrate

  • Strength, Bioavailability, Special Qualities: Magnesium combined with citric acid; up to 16% elemental magnesium
  • Uses & Effects: Digestion; constipation, colon prepping for diagnostic procedures; better tolerated by some
  • Primary Target: General and gut
  • Laxative Properties: High

4. Magnesium carbonate

  • Strength, Bioavailability, Special Qualities: 19-45% elemental magnesium
  • Uses & Effects: Antacid properties, indigestion, acid reflux
  • Primary Target: Gut
  • Laxative Properties: High

5. Magnesium sulfate (Epsom salts, Milk of Magnesia)

  • Strength, Bioavailability, Special Qualities: Varies
  • Uses & Effects: Oral form is not a safe source of dietary magnesium; transdermally (in a bath) has positive effects, especially muscles and nerves
  • Primary Target: Gut and General
  • Laxative Properties: High orallyl, Extremely low transdermally

6. Magnesium chloride oil

  • Strength, Bioavailability, Special Qualities: An oily magnesium salt in liquid form, harvested from the Dead Sea; comes as a transdermal gel, oil or spray
  • Uses & Effects: Good adjunct therapy to increase magnesium level beyond what can be achieved; may help muscle pain; useful for those who cannot tolerate oral forms
  • Primary Target: General
  • Laxative Properties: Extremely low

7. Magnesium chelate

  • Strength, Bioavailability, Special Qualities: Multiple chelated form bound to various amino acids; the kind found in foods naturally; highly absorbable
  • Uses & Effects: Effects vary depending on what chelates are used
  • Primary Target: General
  • Laxative Properties: Low

8. Magnesium malate

  • Strength, Bioavailability, Special Qualities: Chelated form of magnesium with malic acid
  • Uses & Effects: Muscle fatigue; increases energy production and ATP synthesis; supports digestion (take with meals); manages PMS and headaches, pain and fibromyalgia symptoms
  • Primary Target: Muscles
  • Laxative Properties: Low

9. Magnesium taurate

  • Strength, Bioavailability, Special Qualities: Chelated form magnesium with taurine with good absorption and bioavailability
  • Uses & Effects: Calming effect; supports healthy heart function, suppresses palpitations and arrhythmias; migraine prevention
  • Primary Target: Heart
  • Laxative Properties: Low

10. Magnesium orotate

  • Strength, Bioavailability, Special Qualities: Magnesium combined with orotic acid
  • Uses & Effects: Heart repair, DNA repair; enhances athletic performance
  • Primary Target: General
  • Laxative Properties: Moderate

11. Magnesium glycinate

  • Strength, Bioavailability, Special Qualities: Chelated form of magnesium with glycine, high absorption and bioavailability
  • Uses & Effects: Alzheimer’s prevention and treatment; stress; concentration; depression, irritability, anxiety, other mood issues; insomnia
  • Primary Target: Brain
  • Laxative Properties: Low

12. Magnesium L-Threonate

  • Strength, Bioavailability, Special Qualities: Newer form of magnesium; high absorption and bioavailability, only form known to penetrate the blood-brain barrier; excellent cell membrane penetration
  • Uses & Effects: Alzheimer’s prevention and treatment; stress; concentration; depression, irritability, anxiety, other mood issues; insomnia
  • Primary Target: Brain
  • Laxative Properties: Low

FACT #12 (just for fun): Magnesium is formed in large stars by their fusion of helium with neon

Approximately 13 percent of Earth’s mass comes from magnesium. Magnesium is formed in huge stars (those with a mass of eight or more Earth suns) by fusing helium with neon. Magnesium is named for the Greek city of Magnesia, which was historically a source of magnesium oxide.

One Way or Another, Get Your Daily Dose

By now, I hope you can appreciate how important it is to optimize your magnesium levels. Think of magnesium as your body’s “energy czar” in charge of coordinating hundreds of key metabolic operations. When the czar is out to lunch, everything grinds to a halt. Even the most conscientious eaters may not achieve optimal magnesium levels from their foods alone, making this a case where supplements are often advisable. Listen to your body as it will provide you with better data about your magnesium status than any laboratory test.

Magnesium Deficiency: 12 Facts You Need to Know

Dr. B.J. Hardick

About Dr. B.J. Hardick

Dr. B.J. Hardick is a Doctor of Chiropractic and internationally-recognized natural health author and speaker. His health journey began as a child — alternative medicine is the only medicine he has ever known. In 2009, he authored his first book, Maximized Living Nutrition Plans. In 2018, he authored his second book, Align Your Health. An energizing and passionate speaker, Dr. Hardick shares his lifestyle methods to numerous professional and public audiences every year in the United States and Canada. His teachings encompass the principles of ancestral nutrition, detoxification, functional fitness, mindfulness, and green living. Learn More